Bert van Marwijk's two-year project to build a Dutch side capable of securing the nation's first World Cup faces its final reckoning tonight.
Holland in total control
JOHANNESBURG // Bert van Marwijk's two-year project to build a Dutch side capable of securing the nation's first World Cup, carefully planned by the coach upon his appointment after Euro 2008 and, thus far, skilfully executed by his trophy-chasing players in South Africa, faces its final reckoning tonight.
"It's a big relief for us to be here," said John Heitinga, the central defender who plays his club football for Everton in England. "It's a huge point in all our careers. "It's the first World Cup for all of us and it was 32 years since Holland last reached the final. It's a big game, a huge test." Spain stand in their way. Few international teams have cultivated the collective verve and individual gusto of La Roja. As challenges go, the Spaniards, on the verge of adding world success to their continental conquest of two years ago, are a formidable one.
But Holland, free of the morale-sapping factions of previous campaigns, are on a roll. "In this squad, we're really easy-going," said Andre Ooijer, the PSV defender. "Everyone is good friends with each other in the team and that's good." "What you see is what you get with us," said Nigel de Jong, the Manchester City holding midfielder. "Everybody is talking about harmony and togetherness in the Dutch team, but in our squad it actually is like that. There is no hateful feeling anywhere."
The Dutch, unlike Spain, are unbeaten at this World Cup. Holland's six-game tournament streak, however, pales in comparison to the 25-match unbeaten run that Van Marwijk's side is on. If a 2-1 friendly defeat, at home to Australia in September 2008, marred the early stages of Van Marwijk's reign, then the subsequent form is telling. Holland were unbeaten through qualifying, albeit in probably the weakest group, one that included Iceland, Macedonia, Norway and Scotland.
Holland's tame surrender to an Andrei Arshavin-inspired Russia at Euro 2008 after excelling earlier in the tournament, a result that ended the tenure of coach Marco van Basten, is a thing of the past. De Jong, Ooijer and Heitinga believe the success under Van Marwijk is due to a selection system that the players, both the first XI and those warming the bench, understand and accept. Unlike the last-minute team announcements favoured by several of Van Marwijk's World Cup competitors, the 58-year-old Dutchman identified his side 24 months ago, made a few squad places available to ensure competition, and entrusted the Oranje to make it work. "Everybody knows who will start," said Heitinga.
"We had two players [De Jong and Gregory van der Wiel, the right-back] out of the semi-final because of suspension, but they will be back. For me, it's good to know that you are playing; everybody knows their position and place in the squad." Losing the element of a line-up surprise has been countered with renewed cohesion, fluidity and potency. Knowledge has proven powerful in Van Marwijk's well-oiled machine, De Jong said.
"If you're not a starter, you're not a starter. I know my place, I am a starter. It's the same for [Mark] van Bommel as well; our block is already known from the beginning. If guys come in, they know it is to fill a position. It's been like that for two years now." "From the moment [Van Marwijk] started, we had a certain line-up," said Ooijer. "Everyone is playing for set positions, the manager selects them and when we make changes it is person for person."